BY Alastair Curtis in Opinion | 11 MAY 23

The Relevance of Derek Jarman’s ‘Blue’ Now

Neil Bartlett and Jay Bernard discuss a new stage adaptation of the artist’s final film  

BY Alastair Curtis in Opinion | 11 MAY 23

Sometime in 1992, during a trip to St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London, the filmmaker, writer and painter Derek Jarman was told his eyesight was fading. ‘Fizzy holes’ had appeared in his vision: the result of an AIDS-related complication that would, by the end of the year, leave him blind in one eye. In this growing darkness, to his surprise, he started seeing flashes of bright Yves Klein blue. This had always been his favourite colour – the blue of his boiler suits, or the skies over the Dungeness coast – and, during the last months of his life, it inspired his final, most personal film. 

In Blue (1993), he wrote straightforwardly about his body and the illnesses besieging it: the night sweats, aching glands, headaches and ‘scrambled reflexes’. Narrated by John Quentin, Tilda Swinton, Nigel Terry and Jarman, the text is an unflinching account of his fear, uncertainty and courage in the face of impending death. By pairing it with a single shot of blue, luminescent and unchanging throughout its 79-minute running time, viewers experience for themselves the terror of Jarman’s diminishing eye-sight, but also the freedom of transcending it: he wonders, at one moment, what lies beyond the sky.

Derek Jarman
Derek Jarman, 1985. Courtesy and photograph: © James Mackay

On first seeing the film, the writer and theatre director Neil Bartlett reacted with horror. ‘I wanted it to stop,’ he tells me. The two men had met in 1989, when Bartlett, as Mistress of Ceremonies for the National Review of Live Art Festival, invited Jarman to create an installation at Glasgow’s Third Eye Centre. Featuring two men sleeping on a bed surrounded by homophobic newspaper cuttings and encircled by barbed wire, the artwork Jarman created evoked the decade’s backdrop of death and loss with a forthright anger and urgency. Bartlett was surprised, even unsettled, by the contemplative tone of Blue. ‘Sit still, slow your heart rate, open your mind, be present in the face of what’s happening; I couldn’t do it,’ he says. ‘I got through the ’90s by being very busy and very angry.’

Bartlett has come to appreciate Blue’s lyrical tribute to love and desire in 1980s London. But, for its passionate protest against the British government, Section 28 and what Jarman cheekily called ‘hetero-soc’, Bartlett also compares Blue to Jarman’s series of large, confrontational oil paintings, produced the same year, in which he carved ironic, outraged messages into the thick impasto: ‘BLIND FATE LET’S FUCK’, or ‘FUCK ME BLIND’. ‘People who talk about the beatific late Derek are kidding themselves,’ says Bartlett. ‘Blue is full of bad manners.’ 

Derek Jarman, Fuck Me Blind, 1993, oil on canvas, 2.5 × 1.8 m. Courtesy: Amanda Wilkinson Gallery

This month Bartlett is directing Blue Now, a series of live performances of the film accompanied by an ethereal soundscape of whispers, footsteps, chanting and Tibetan bells, arranged by Blue’s original composer Simon Fisher Turner. More than a simple recreation of the film, Blue Now reflects on how the film resonates with artists from the generations who have grown up after the epidemic’s crisis years. It tours to galleries and theatres in Brighton, Margate, Manchester and London.

Among the performers are the poet Joelle Taylor, actor Russell Tovey and writer and performer Travis Alabanza. The poet Jay Bernard, who completes the quartet, describes themselves like Bartlett as slow to appreciate Blue on first viewing. ‘I didn’t understand what Jarman was about.’ But their 2019 poetry collection Surge, which responds to the New Cross Fire of 1981 – an incident in which 13 young Black people died in a house fire – shares many of his themes: belonging and memory, liberation, eroticism and community.

Derek Jarman
Derek Jarman, 1985. Courtesy and photograph: © James Mackay

In its emptiness that blue screen can frustrate as well as enchant, but Bartlett suggests we consider it an imaginative space, through which Jarman connects his sickness to the troubles affecting queer people in our own time. Bartlett thinks of it as a ‘door… turned sideways, the size and shape of a cinema screen. You can look at it or stay outside it, but sometimes you will find yourselves passing through the door into another time and place.’ For Bernard, it offers the chance to create solidarity between generations of queer people: ‘Your art, your work, your relationships, your loves, your life. All these things still constitute a nightmare for a certain sector of society,’ they laugh. ‘And I’m really happy with that.’

There are dark times ahead. Bartlett suggests we learn from Jarman’s courage, resilience and, above all, his resourcefulness. ‘He’s a benchmark for a new generation of artists. How the hell did he manage it? How do you make an epoch-defining feature film with no money and when you’re spending most of your time sitting in hospital waiting rooms fielding phone calls telling you another friend has died?’ Blue was finished just four months before Jarman died, in February 1994. ‘You do it. That was Derek’s greatest life lesson: “Darling, get on with it.”’

Blue Now is presented by WeTransfer in association with Fuel and Basilisk Communications. Performances are at Brighton Festival, 7 May; Turner Contemporary, Margate, 13 May; HOME, Manchester, 21 May; Tate Modern, London, 27 May. For more information, see here. The digital offering can be found here

Main image: Derek Jarman, Blue, 1993, film still. Courtesy: © Basilisk Communications; photograph: Liam Daniel

Alastair Curtis is a playwright based in London, UK.